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Men's discus thrower Sam Mattis is one of many athletes who had to compete for his team this summer after finals, and after his own graduation. 

Credit: Ananya Chandra

For most of Penn’s undergraduate population, the end of the final exam period signals the time for kicking back, relaxing and looking back at the previous year.

But for a very lucky, very small fraction of the student body, the onset of summer simply implies business as usual.

Playing on a varsity spring sport inherently carries the risk of playing past the school year’s conclusion, and 2016 was no exception. This year, Penn’s women’s lacrosse team reached its first NCAA Division I quarterfinal in six years, resulting in the squad playing 11 days past the conclusion of final exams.

Meanwhile, the men’s and women’s track and field teams combined to send a school record 16 athletes to the NCAA D-I East Preliminaries, pushing their seasons to at least the end of May — and even later for the few who qualified for the NCAA Championships.

At first glance, one might disparage the idea of being forced to remain on school grounds after the year’s conclusion, but there are some advantages. Without the otherwise constant burden of balancing rigorous schoolwork with athletic preparations, student-athletes are able to lock in on their respective sports, allowing them to commit full-time to their teams in a way not previously possible.

“It definitely is nice when school ends. ... It’s basically doing literally nothing except hanging out and practicing and focusing on whatever you have to focus on,” said men’s discus thrower and 2016 graduate Sam Mattis, a four-time NCAA qualifier. “It’s nice to finally get to be like a professional athlete, at least for a little bit.”

Chronologically, the layout between Penn’s school year and the various spring sport schedules isn’t annually consistent, and that comes with its ups and downs. This year, women’s lacrosse and both track and field teams unfortunately had their respective Ivy League Championships come during Penn’s final exam period. But once both teams advanced to compete on the national stage, the calendar suddenly turned from a curse to a blessing, as they were in the clear to focus on securing big-time postseason results.

“Technically I’d rather have it so that when we hit NCAAs, they can just be lacrosse players, since that’s kind of fun,” women’s lacrosse head coach Karin Corbett said in April, foreshadowing her team’s playoff run. “We shoot for that, so then they’re really just here to play lacrosse. They’ve finished their exams, so that’s what they’re focusing on.”

Of course, with the sudden lack of academic obligations following the end of exams, the newfound time can’t all be spent in the weight room or on the practice fields. From a social standpoint, daily life also becomes significantly different for the Quakers who stay on the deserted campus, as they experience the unusual dynamic of simultaneously facing a rapid increase in freedom and a decrease of nearby classmates to enjoy it with.

“Honestly, Penn is really chill once everybody leaves besides the spring athletes, and some of the guys at my house stayed for a while too,” Mattis, who recently became the school’s first CoSIDA Academic All-American in any sport since 2009, said. “We kind of would just hang out and explore Philly, because we’d have time to do that. You can literally just walk around for a few hours and then come back and practice, so it’s really nice.”

While this time period can certainly be described as a change of pace for any spring athletes, that concept holds especially true for seniors like the recently graduated Mattis. For the vast majority of the Class of 2016, the days leading up to Penn’s Commencement ceremony on May 16 marked the emotional conclusion of a four-year life journey — but for those few athletes still competing at that point, there was still plenty of business to handle.

“I didn’t really enjoy ‘Senior Week’ as much as I wanted to,” said Mattis, who went on last month to finish second nationally in the discus throw at the NCAA Finals. “But you know, that’s part of being an athlete; having a little self-restraint and not going out there and ruining things.”

Mattis is different from his classmates in the sense that his season still isn’t truly over — as the top-ranked American discus thrower of any age in 2016, he comfortably earned the right to throw at the U.S. Olympic Trials, where he will begin competing this week.

But for most senior spring athletes, the end of the season can perhaps hit a little harder than those of fall and winter sports, as being eliminated brings an abrupt and unplanned end to the entire college experience, a stark contrast to the delicately planned Commencement.

For example, an 8-4 Elite Eight setback by No. 7 seed Penn women’s lacrosse to unseeded Penn State was difficult to swallow, not only because the team was a game short of advancing to its first Final Four since 2009 — in a season where it happened to be played in Philadelphia, nonetheless — but also because the upset brought a harsh end to the seniors’ lives at Penn as a whole.

“I wish I could go back and replay the game, but it doesn’t really work that way,” recent graduate and second-team IWLCA All-American Nina Corcoran told the Penn Gazette in June. “It all didn’t really hit me until leaving campus. It was kind of like two things ended at once. It wasn’t the best feeling. But I still think everyone had a lot to be proud of.”

Ultimately, the highs and lows of being an athlete after final exams are evident. Even those who have experienced the freedom, relaxation and increased focus firsthand know that as long as they’re in University City, that kind of life will always be the exception — not the rule.

“I think everybody would probably do better with less obligations outside of athletics, but that’s not what you signed up for when you came to Penn,” Mattis said. “You’re supposed to take classes, get good grades, get a degree — nobody here signed up just to do sports.”

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